A woman who was in a bed next to Joyce Echaquan at the Joliette hospital testified the Atikamekw woman was treated inhumanely for hours the day she died, far beyond the seven-minute video that became a symbol of mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada.
Annie Desroches said care staff ignored Ms. Echaquan’s cries for help, chastised her for crying in pain and mocked her through much of the morning.
“It was not normal to leave a person in such a state. The people who were supposed to help her and comfort her that day let her die instead,” said Ms. Desroches, who testified at a Quebec coroner’s inquest into Ms. Echaquan’s death. Others who have testified, including the hospital care staff involved in the case, have been covered by a publication ban concealing their identity.
“She needed someone at her side to hold her hand and tell her she was going to be okay. Instead they laughed at her.”
Ms. Desroches was so upset by Ms. Echaquan’s treatment she wrote down her observations in a 10-page note the next day. She shared her notes with police who were investigating the case but did not lay charges.
Ms. Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven, died Sept. 28, 2020, at Joliette hospital, shortly after she recorded and broadcast video on social media of hospital staff telling her she was stupid, a drain on the health system and better off dead. The video drew condemnation around the world.
Hospital staff testified for much of the first two weeks of the inquiry in Trois-Rivières, frequently irritating coroner Géhane Kamel as they minimized racism in the hospital and mistreatment of Ms. Echaquan.
News commentators had criticized Ms. Kamel and Conrad Lord, the fired nurse’s lawyer, said Ms. Kamel’s final report might lack credibility and objectivity and suggested perhaps she should recuse herself.
Ms. Kamel apologized Monday if she gave some an impression she may be biased.
She had warned the 54-year-old nurse who was fired for delivering much of the abuse that she would be “a bit more vindictive” in challenging her testimony. The coroner also accused her and other staff of being judgmental, evasive and untruthful.
“While some of my comments may have given the appearance of a certain bias on my part, I maintain that at all times, from the first day of this inquiry, I have respected my important duty to be impartial and independent,” Ms. Kamel said. “I can assure you this will be the case until the very end of the process.”
Ms. Kamel, who has presided over several high-profile inquests in Quebec including the investigation of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care homes, received a vote of confidence from head coroner Pascale Descary. Ms. Kamel said she will remain at her post, adding “evasive and opaque answers are harmful to the pursuit of truth.”
In her remarkably detailed account, Ms. Desroches said she was admitted to the Joliette hospital emergency department late at night on Sept. 27 after a fall. She woke up at 7:43 a.m. in unit 14.1, next to Ms. Echaquan’s bed, 14.2.
Ms. Echaquan had abdominal pain and complained that the hospital kept sending her home with morphine. She told Ms. Desroches she no longer wanted it.
Ms. Echaquan was calm and coherent and used her telephone to help Ms. Desroches find a number to reach her son. Ms. Echaquan commiserated with Ms. Desroches about a time she too took a fall.
Ms. Desroches, 37, dozed off briefly and when she awoke Ms. Echaquan was crying in pain.
The nurse whom Ms. Echaquan later video recorded bombarding her with abuse told her they “would shoot her up so she can sleep like a normal person,” according to Ms. Desroches’s account.
Ms. Echaquan continued to writhe around in pain and fell on the floor. A worker accused her of falling on purpose. She asked to be restrained so she wouldn’t fall again, but hospital staff refused.
A nurse accused her of acting like a baby, Ms. Desroches said. “I didn’t understand what was going on. And then I saw four nurses laughing at her,” she added, weeping. “It went on for an eternity. It was not normal. She was crying out, ‘You are letting me die.’ ”
A nurse gave Ms. Echaquan oral sedation but Ms. Desroches said it only seemed to make her worse. Ms. Echaquan asked for juice to calm her stomach but was told she couldn’t have it.
Early in the afternoon Ms. Echaquan was moved to a closed room, where she continued to yell for several more minutes. After a short time she went quiet. Ms. Echaquan died at 12:45 p.m.
Josiane Ulrich, another patient at the hospital that day, told investigators she heard a hospital staffer say “good, finally we’ll have some peace, she’s dead.”
Stéphane Guilbault was visiting his daughter at the hospital and gave a statement to the inquiry that he overheard staff saying, “Indians like to complain and screw and have children.”
Ms. Desroches walked past the room a short time later and saw Ms. Echaquan lying motionless, with pale skin.
“I think I knew deep down that she was gone,” Ms. Desroches said. “But I didn’t realize until the next day, when I heard she had died, what I had witnessed.”
Ms. Desroches said she had never seen “such aggression and ill manner” among hospital staff, “who were nothing but nice to me.”
She expressed regret that she didn’t help Ms. Echaquan more, but she wrote her detailed account so she could help the investigation. “Joyce needed me. I should have taken her in my arms,” she said. “At least I could do this for Joyce and her family.”
The coroner, Ms. Kamel, told Ms. Desroches she was “very courageous” in her testimony.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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